With less than a week left in the New York State Senate’s legislative session, the Model Alliance and other supporters of the Fashion Workers Act recruited Amazon Labor Union president Chris Smalls to lead a downtown rally in New York Friday morning.
The pro-labor legislation is meant to regulate management agencies that operate without oversight. Ensuring that payment is made to models and creatives within 45 days is one objective of the legislation. Designed to create more transparency and accountability in the industry, the aim is to give models and behind-the-scenes creatives as much labor support as any other worker in New York State. If approved, the legislation would ensure that agencies have a fiduciary responsibility to models, industry hairstylists, makeup artists and other creatives. It is also designed to prohibit any unreasonably high commissions and fees.
Supporters gathered outside of Next Models Management’s Watts Street offices. Introducing Smalls, the Model Alliance founder Sara Ziff noted his commitment to ensuring that every worker deserves transparency, fairness and basic respect in the workplace. She added, “He is a once in a generation leader and we are so grateful to have his support.”
Unmissable in a hot pink hat and neon tie dye jacket, Smalls spoke of his solidarity with the Model Alliance and support for the Fashion Workers Act, as well as the need to hold the trillion-dollar fashion industry accountable. He also addressed the racial inequities in the industry.
“This is a day where we take a stance,” he said, noting how models and creatives in the crowd were among those who have been exploited. “We have to stand together, because at the end of the day we’re all workers no matter what industry you’re in. From Amazon to the runway, we’re all workers at the end of the day. We deserve our fair share. Today I’m proud to stand with my brothers and sisters here in solidarity, showing that labor will support these models and creatives, who are exploited in this industry and don’t get the transparency and fair share that they rightly deserve.”
Friday’s rally included remarks by New York State Sen. Brad Hoylman, models Kaja Sokola and Alex Shanklin, makeup artist Nick Barose, photographer Tony Kim and others. Hoylman, a co-presenter of the legislation, said, “This is the bill. This is what we need to pass in the next three days in Albany. We’re going back to Albany on Tuesday. We have until Thursday to get the Fashion Workers Act across the finish line. I think we’ll do it, because it is common sense. It is common sense that you would hold management agencies to the same standards as we hold every other employer agency in the state of New York.”
Calling on all elected officials to pay attention to this issue as well as everyone in the New York City community, Smalls said, “We have to pay attention to what’s been going on for years. Enough is enough. We’re all tired of being exploited and the transparency is not there. We’re not just going to stand here today and talk about it. We’re going to take action. We’re going to hold our labor, our creativity and our models from the runway — we’re going to tell them we’re not going to work with these people. We’re not going to keep allowing this system to exploit us until we get what we rightfully deserve. That is transparency, that is equity. We are all creatives, especially the Black and brown individuals that are in this industry. They get exploited even more. We’re going to make sure that everybody has the same equal employment opportunity and has their rightful fair share.”
Promising his continued solidarity with the Model Alliance, Smalls vowed to continue to speak up about these issues. “We have to make sure that when we are fighting for these issues that the community that we represent knows that we are all together,” Smalls said.
Smalls continued, “Just imagine if we all stopped going to work…if we said, ‘You know what? We’re not going to work. We’re not going to hit the runways, do your makeup or style you until you give us what we want.’ That’s what we have to do from here on out. We can’t allow them to keep doing exactly what they’ve been doing for decades. We have to put an end to that.”
Until workers get what they deserve, Smalls encouraged the crowd “to band together, stand as one and shut it down until they do right by us. They owe us respect, money and dignity. And they damn sure owe us our fair share.” He then led the crowd in the refrain, “If we don’t get it, shut it down.”
Sokola emphasized the psychological impact that modeling has on vulnerable young girls in the “brutal” fashion industry. Shanklin, a former model, said that “from the outside, it looked like he had a reasonably good career.” But getting paid on time, financial transparency and predatory behavior are factors, he said. “New York is a really great place to live, and even to work. Unfortunately though, the workers here don’t have the protection in the fashion industry that they deserve,” he said. “We’re kind of the backbone of everything but we get treated the worst.”
After emphasizing the need for people to take a close look at the bill, Shanklin spoke of racial barriers in the fashion industry. He said he had been turned away at the doors of agencies, where he was trying to get representation, due to his skin color. There had also been castings where all of the Black models were in one room “separate from the other guys, other celebrities or whatever they were casting,” he said. “That wasn’t really the best thing. I’m hoping that the bill passes, you guys support it and all of these things come to an end. I would like to see the future of the fashion industry in New York City be preserved in the right way.”